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Louise

Pat and I walked into the Melbourne Bar with the confidence of inexperience. The place was known around Xavier as the bar near the nursing school. It was like so many of its kind: slightly seedy, significantly smoky; it was high on hopes but always short on delivery. The lighting was low, of course, to add mystery and romance to blandness. It was everything we had hoped.

Earlier that day we had been studying philosophy and science; however, tonight we were rubbing elbows and getting down and dirty. Sartre never had it so good. We ordered beer and settled onto the stools. Neither of us saw her sit down at the piano, but out of the corner came a slow melody. It built into a regular rhythm in the left hand and then little by little the right hand began a syncopated superstructure that made you want to move over there. We did.

Her name was Louise. She was clearly an older woman, whatever that means when you’re 19, with black hair that waved its way toward the back of her head. Her dress was low cut and her full body filled it wonderfully. The overhead spot gave just enough light to cast shadows as she moved along the keyboard. She was lost in the music and we were lost in her. She slid into a moody blues that cast shadows on your soul. The bar talk never slowed but the music rubbed against us and we stopped drinking and watched and listened.

The nurses started to filter in and soon we were surrounded by women buying their own beer. No shortage of glances in our direction and enough tentative smiles to be certain that this was heaven and we were inside. But Louise was now our archangel and she never even looked up. She just slid into a slow bit of improvisation. It was laid-back and smooth, and in Cincinnati if that is not a conundrum there never was one. She made notes that whirled and sidled and undulated and ran and turned abruptly like a woman working through her varied moods.

Pat and I had musical backgrounds and noticed the instruments sitting idly behind her. It was as if God had called and we had blundered in to answer. He played bass and I the drums. We talked her into letting us sit in. There was no written music, only the rhythm in the lead she gave and the improvisation that followed. She looked back and smiled slightly and we started to move together. It was one mood after another and we worked with whatever she served up. Commercial recognition came in the form of free beer from the bartender and fame in the form of applause and come-hither looks from the women we had come hither to go hither to.

After that evening, it was every weekend at the Melbourne Bar with Louise. The ease and freedom of making music was a doorway into another life.

And then life ended. One night Louise was not there and the bartender told us she had left and that was that. When you are in college and learning of the eternal verities, people did not just disappear and “that was that.” But it was that way and even though we went back several weekends, no one came to play the piano and we bought our own beer and then we did not go anymore.

About a year later, when I was preparing to graduate and enter medical school, I walked into a bar in another part of town. It was late afternoon. I was not accustomed to drinking in the afternoon, but this was a special day for reasons I don’t remember. So I sat at the bar and ordered an illegal beer when there came a touch on the piano that was familiar. I turned and she was there again.

The afternoon light was cold and it struck an old piano that stood against an insipid green wall. Louise was in a nice dress with some jewelry but the image did not project. The clack of pool balls and the radio behind the bar pushed the music around and made it seek out the reaches of the room away from people. It existed but did not invite.

I walked over and she smiled. At her break we talked and I learned that she had to leave the other place because the receipts could not support the music. Her hair was the same but the daylight was not kind. Smooth skin in the soft light of a smoky bar became something else in the afternoon. A full body was now just fleshy and the smoldering eyes were only sad and hardened. Her kindness had not changed nor her love for the music that held her captive to a way of life. When the break was over, we shook hands. She went back to the instrument and I left the beer on the table and looked back once from the door. She looked over at me, nodded and turned to play the first notes of an uncertain future.

I never saw Louise again. So I learned the importance of magic and its transitory nature, and of the vagaries of a life that gives joy to us all and then later takes that joy and replaces it with experience.

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